I’ve explained La La Land to many friends and family members over the past few days. Often, I say this:
La La Land revolves around two Los Angeles characters: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring pianist who strives to revive a dying jazz genre, and Mia (Emma Stone), who aspires to be an A-list L.A. actress. Both were broke and living paycheck to paycheck when Mia stumbles upon Sebastian after a minor highway confrontation playing freeform jazz music at a restaurant where he had just been fired. Both begin their honeymoon phase after bumping into each other a second time at a pool party. But …
There’s always that moment of “but …” whenever I finish explaining director Damien Chazelle‘s (Whiplash) La La Land.
This isn’t a perfect film or even the most solid of the year, but it thrives in the in-between moments. Whenever there isn’t a musical number, the film shines. There’s the “but …” moment. Gosling and Stone do not work when they’re singing alone or in tandem. Sure, they can carry a tune, but often the struggle is heard through their voices.
Outside of the dancing and less-than-spectacular singing, Chazelle’s choice of colors in each scene was superb. The opening number took place on a busy L.A. highway traffic jam. In Miami, we honk horns. In L.A., drivers exit their vehicles and jump on their neighbor’s, all in the spirit of song. The colors — blue, yellow, green and red — are seen throughout the film and knowingly match the mood of each season. Chazelle breaks the film up into intermittent seasons: fall, summer, spring and winter. When Mia is in the dumps, she’s often wearing a blue dress. When she’s at her peak love adventure, there’s yellow on her dress. This was a cute touch on a film that embraced an adorable tone.
At first, the formula is a classic love tale: Man and woman unknowingly pass each other, woman sees man again, man ignores, woman sees man again and then they fall into love.
However, Sebastian’s journey with Mia takes a swift turn at a scene I felt was the turning point of their relationship. One morning, Sebastian wakes up to a smiling Mia. As he sits up, he catches a large water stain in the corner of the ceiling, which symbolized the not-so-peachy situation outside of their love.
Backtracking a bit, the lovebirds have dreams. Sebastian wants to turn a local club back into a jazz spot, and Mia wants to break free of her low-paying barista job on the Warner Bros. lot, where her and collegues get auditions that often fall through. One night at a jazz club, where Sebastian is trying to get Mia to fall in love with jazz, Keith (John Legend), an old classmate of Sebastian’s, offers a keyboard position on his band “The Messengers.” Sebastian declines the offer, but later, after the water stain sequence, he accepts it.
The shining moments are found in the chemistry between our dreamers. The film succeeds in playing to the Hollywood tropes (while walking through the Warner Bros. property, an actor and actress can be seen fighting after the director yells, “Cut!”). The film is self-aware in these areas.
There are plenty of beautiful bits of cinematography, as well. Whenever Sebastian would play piano, the extreme close up on his hands as they graced the keys made the viewer feel immersed and passionate about the music, themselves. Whenever a solo musical number took place, the surrounding light would dim, and a spotlight would cast onto either Mia or Sebastian. It was a really graceful touch in emotional moments.
The conclusion to Chazelle’s tale wasn’t cliché, which was appreciated. Mia and Sebastian did not end up together forever. They drifted apart and never fell back in love because their dreams took them elsewhere. This is good social commentary on the topic of whether to sacrifice dreams for a significant other or aim for the stars (not float, unlike the unnecessary scene in the observatory). Often times, childhood dreams are shattered by the harsh realities of adulthood. Both dreamers did not want to sacrifice for their dreams, and neither are the “bad guy” in this film, even though La La Land tends to sway the audience into believing Stone was being unreasonable. “She should’ve stuck it out and waited for the love of her life!” I cannot tell you how often I heard that after the film said “The End.”Although, there is evidence to support those who say Mia should’ve contacted Sebastian after getting back from Paris. She would’ve seen him beginning to build his club and make it the hottest jazz spot on the block.
Odes to classic love tales and jazz made me feel fuzzy inside through the first half of the film, so not all the throwbacks to the past were unwarranted. But if you’re going to strive in keeping musicals relevant during Oscar season, La La Land did not succeed. I couldn’t buy into Stone’s number during her big-break audition that landed her a huge role in a film that skyrocketed her career. I couldn’t buy into the duo dancing on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. All of this distracted from the heartfelt bits of acting and wonderful dialogue in-between.